I first encountered Emerson’s work while on a search committee at Goddard College. We were looking for a creative nonfiction writer to advise the independent work of our BFA creative writing students. Emerson was getting his PhD from the European Graduate School, had college-level teaching, spent time as a journalist, with work featured in The Huffington Post and the anthology Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics.
Emerson sent a sample of writing from their first book, Ghost Box, which is based on the story of Emily, who arrived in the parking lot of a vacant big store, or “ghost box,” near downtown Los Angeles with 45-pound bags of cat food in the fall of 2012. Emily makes this ghost box into a bird sanctuary and the LAPD can’t catch her. A blend of poetry and prose, I bought the book and Emerson got the job. Now a doctor of philosophy, he continues to teach at Goddard and is a Dana and David Dornsife Teaching Postdoctoral Fellow in Gender Studies at the University of Southern California.
I appreciate the poetic rigor and stamina of Emerson’s lyrical and documentary “I.” The willingness and need to be there, living the story as much as possible. He looks and looks again and this is the tension in the narrative, the ritual that deepens and forms insight. In his forthcoming Heaven, Emerson, through childhood memories and critical texts, is questing through the story of their body in relation to their mother. “I am like Mom,” Emerson writes, “Symmetrical and tan. I write about her body because of my own discomfort, the oil drum fire that is myself.”
THE BELIEVER: You write such alive sentences; how do you do that? How do you approach the function and purpose of the sentence?
EMERSON WHITNEY: I love making work that vibrates and wakes up in general under somebody’s gaze. Glad it’s doing that for you! I approach the sentence like I hang out with a friend. I’m so happy to be with sentences.
BLVR: Why Heaven as the title for this book, especially with its religious connotations?
EW: In the book, my mom asks if I think she’s going to heaven. I was visiting her recently and she actually said it again, like maybe in heaven you get to do everything you didn’t get to do in your life that you wanted to do. I was surprised to hear her reciting some of the lines in the book almost exactly, but I realized it became a device for me in the text because she does mention it often. It’s become a refrain.
BLVR: When was the moment you knew you were writing, or had to write, Heaven?
EW: I think about this “when” question a lot, partially because Heaven is absolutely the most all-encompassing project I’ve ever given my energy to. The truth is, every moment until now was me trying to write or not write this book. I’d wanted to be a journalist or somebody who wrote about other people (my first book was a profile of someone else framed around my own documentation of the profile) but I kept coming back to these childhood scenes that would show up in all my other work as embedded anecdotes. I was told by a mentor that if I didn’t give my full time and energy to this particular story that I wouldn’t be able to write anything else; it’d just keep leaking it out everywhere. She was wholly and completely right and I’m glad I listened.
BLVR: It’s insightful what your mentor said—we are communicating the thing we most need to write in all the writing we’re doing. What were your top-three “leaks” that would keep showing up?
EW: I agree! When I write about “circuses of yellow graffiti and veins on the backs of legs,” the stuff about “dead moths, hanging drapes,” the whole story about Charmian, and a great deal of the Sacramento stuff, both thematically and in terms of the overall grit of it, all that would recur.
BLVR: I’m thinking about recurring narrative fragments—these leaks—and the trans body and making language to speak our distinct experiences. How were you writing within and outside the contours of the trans narrative? What narrative routes of freedom were you wanting to enact?
EW: What a gorgeous question, and I’m so glad you ask it because I do think about this kind of enacting all the time. I think of Fred Moten’s work, which has a subject that often flits in and out of trap doors that live in his sentences. I also think of Hélène Cixous: “We have to keep changing the forms of writing all the time so they’re not worn out by use, the fugitive is everything,” she said to me once. I don’t know if there is any real route to “freedom” here, like I wonder all the time if this is a “trans book” because I am, and that wondering is flagging the fact that we live in an oppressive system (i.e. not everyone does this wondering). But, regarding the form of this thing, I was told once by a friend, Mady Schutzman, who read an early draft of this, not to be obscure for obscurity’s sake. I did have that habit—I love parataxis and I’d use it and jump around and be vague as a way to avoid the actual truth-telling process of this work. She instructed me to write the “grout” too, like the pieces in between the loose threads, and that’s how this book got woven together. The narrative fragments, that leaking you’re noticing, was very intentional and I’m glad it’s coming off that way now.
BLVR: Your Heaven is gorgeous. There’s a tenderness, a pinch of academic reflexity, and critical compassion given over to the language. The way you’re weaving queer theory, feminism, and shouting out theorists and artists in lyrical paragraphs, poetic in its economy and associative eye. The telling of chronic illness Elhers Danlos, which you share with your mother and grandmother, your body and your mother’s body and your grandmother’s body… a maternal line… a mothertext… all so very mitochondrial… done with a cellular poignancy that sets a tone of discernment as you think about your mother in a new language—a new language that rightfully includes the lacunae of her abandonment. As a reader, I feel like I’m there with you as you come into this new.
How did you angle your vision, position your heart, locate body to your memories of past events, emotions, to time, to running conversations in your head, so that you could speakwrite “the most painful part of your body—your mom’s love”?
EW: Your summary is perfect. The feeling of your understanding is incredible. I was really inspired by Justin Torres’ We The Animals back in the day and I loved the texture of those vignettes. I was reading that like, Oh, my childhood could get told this way. I’d write out the scenes and then wash the language. I like to lose anything that’s not necessary to the feeling, you know? I did that and then I spread everything out on the floor—a friend named Jeremy has a theory-angled press and was suggesting I write something for them, so for a minute, I thought maybe I’d make the book entirely theoretical. I’d written a whole thing based on the Freud and Lacan and Malabou and Butler and Karen Barad stuff, but I realized it was bonkers to try to do something exclusively theoretical because my other material felt so rich. I spread both manuscripts on the floor, pulled them apart and wove them together. I figured if I wove this stuff together, the two modes next to each other would make a middle place.
BLVR: Say more about this middle place?
EW: I’m saying “middle” as a stand in for hybrid, I guess, and I’m seeing it like two hands with fingers folded together, they’re still distinct, just a third thing when they’re held.
BLVR: What does it mean to “wash the language”?
EW: I think it’s something Maggie Nelson said to me once, like the idea that there’s not a lot of extra adjectives or adverbs. My jam is for every single word to be essential to the image.
BLVR: Just in your responses alone, you seem to value mentors. When did you realize that mentors were a necessary part of your literary development?
EW: I like giving credit to all the thinkers who have participated in my work with me. Often in the literary world, we hear that writing is a solo act. I don’t experience it like that. My editor, Claire Boyle, went deep into this work with me, for example, she supported so much of the existing writing that I was blown away and then she just helped me rake it in the direction where we both saw it going. I like seeing what we do as totally collaborative, particularly even more so when the work is published. Even with a single word, readers bring a web of associations to their experience of reading. This thing is yours. I made a sort of portal. I let it go.